Most funders have good intentions when they set out to build capacity among their grantee partners. But whose intentions really matter? When it comes to building meaningful capacity, the goals of partner organizations should lead the way — and the principles of design thinking can help.
This is especially true when building an organization’s capacity to do and use evaluation, a function that extends far beyond the individual program(s) in which a given funder might invest. Building strong evaluation capacity often demands a culture shift among staff members across an organization — for nonprofits and funders, too, as Nancy Csuti described in a blog post last year. And while funders might be able to mandate things like reporting on program deliverables, a true culture of evaluation must be led from within.
Recent reports on evaluation capacity-building have confirmed the value of tailoring interventions to meet partner organizations’ needs. But what does this look like in practice? I have found the principles of the growing field of design thinking to be a valuable and helpful way for funders to think about working with their partners to build evaluation capacity.
According to IDEO.org, design thinking is a process that “starts with the people you’re designing for and ends with new solutions that are tailor-made to suit their needs.” The field offers three interconnected “spaces” through which one works to design something: inspiration, ideation, and implementation. How might a funder walk through these spaces while designing and implementing an evaluation capacity-building initiative?
At Johnson & Johnson, we work with our grantee partners to create social impact by supporting and championing those who are on the front lines of delivering care. Our partners lead the way when it comes to program design, implementation, and success measurement. So when we set out to build evaluation capacity, it made sense to harness this partner-centered approach. Upon reflecting on our experience, we found that we had actually applied several of the principles of design thinking to our approach.
The first space in design thinking, inspiration, is all about identifying and defining a problem or opportunity from the end-user perspective. During this phase, design thinkers immerse themselves as much as possible in the experience of the people for whom they’re designing.
For J&J’s evaluation capacity-building initiative, we worked closely with an evaluation consultant to create a comprehensive needs assessment process. The goal was to more deeply understand how partners were doing and using evaluation, and to have them identify their most important gaps and wishes.
Through this process, we learned that a few of our partners, including the U.S.-based Women Deliver Young Leaders Program, expressed a fundamental evaluation need: they were seeking a way to describe how their organization’s efforts create change within communities and at the global level, and a way to track progress toward these goals. For organizations in these early evaluation stages, we didn’t jump straight to a list of suggested tools or templates. Rather, we listened first and allowed them to define their challenge in their own words, which promoted ownership of whatever solution we would design together.
In the ideation space, design thinkers aim to develop ideas about how to address the problem identified during inspiration. This space is all about brainstorming, and through an iterative process, ideas are proposed, tested, and refined. Creativity in particular is a priority in this stage, as participants are encouraged to be open to alternative ideas that may come from unexpected places — and to be prepared to continually adapt.
In this phase of our work, we especially encouraged our partners to engage individuals from across their organization — and not limit the brainstorm to those in an evaluation-focused role. Individuals like program managers, finance staff, and others can challenge the way evaluators look at things and offer fresh perspectives.
For example, the Mumbai-based organization Prerana was especially keen to engage a wide range of its staff members in idea generation, as building a culture of evaluation was important to them. As they tossed around ideas about working with a local consultant, it was clear there was interest in learning about evaluation across the organization. The team asked: why not offer some basic evaluation training to all staff? This idea might not have emerged had Prerana not cast a wide net during the ideation space.
During the implementation space, ideas are translated into action. And while the grantee partner is responsible in the case of implementing evaluation activities, the funder can still play a role by going beyond simply training organizations on evaluation tools and approaches, and also encouraging and fostering opportunities for partner organizations to apply these skills in practice.
Prototyping activities is how design thinkers foster this learning by doing. When it comes to implementing evaluation activities, this is really the only way for organizations to begin to understand potential implementation challenges as well as unintended consequences.
Our U.S.-based partner AmeriCares sought to develop a way to estimate lives impacted by their medical donations. The team used existing data and performed rigorous modeling to create an algorithm and associated tool. However, because AmeriCares knew that the tool’s usefulness would depend entirely on how the team adopted it, our support included an opportunity for AmeriCares to pilot the prototype tool in real-world contexts. The pilot helped them to collect and analyze data for a few of their programs and learn from insights gathered by their teams.
Reflecting on our evaluation capacity-building approach, we found that it had a name: design thinking. When it comes to building evaluation capacity, I encourage funders to consider this grantee-led frame of thinking — and to share what they learn so we can continue to explore how design thinking can strengthen our social impact work.
Laura Hollod is senior manager for monitoring and evaluation at Johnson & Johnson Global Community Impact.